Monday, March 31, 2008

Stalking Jack London

The Call of the Wild. White Fang. The Klondike stories. “To Build a Fire.” The Sea-Wolf. Chances are good that one or more of these works by Jack London once kept vigil on your bedside table, or maintains a place on your bookshelf—he was once a neighbor, after all, a denizen of nearby Glen Ellen, a tiny town in the Sonoma Valley. This weekend, I stalked Jack London—through the town where he lived, to the ruins of the house he loved, to the very bedroom where he died at forty.

My exploration began on Friday, with drinks at the Jack London Saloon, next door to the Jack London Lodge in Glen Ellen. This bar/restaurant was established in 1908, which coincides to the time when the Londons were living in the area—conceivably, Jack London once hoisted a pint (or three) just as we did, overlooking the creek that runs beside the outdoor patio.

Saturday, we headed to the Jack London State Historical Park, an 800-acre park that was Jack and Charmian London’s “Beauty Ranch.” Though Jack London traveled the world, he loved Sonoma and invested large amounts of money in building his dream house there—a house he christened Wolf House. Tragically, the house burnt to the ground days before the Londons moved in; and though they had plans to rebuild it, they never did. The ruins are there, weed-riddled and weather-worn; you can still see the many fireplaces that graced every floor, and the empty crevice where the pool was to have been. Jack London lived the rest of his life in a cottage on the property, and died in a glass-enclosed sleeping porch.

Besides the Wolf House ruins and the cottage, Jack London’s “pig palace” remains on the park grounds as well—a large structure featuring nineteen small stalls for pigs, as well as a central feeding silo. If a pig pen can be luxurious, then this one certainly is.

After Jack London’s death, Charmian built yet another house on Beauty Ranch, called the House of Happy Walls. This house is now a museum, showcasing many of the souvenirs the Londons brought back from their travels, as well as many first editions of Jack London’s books—of which there are more than fifty.

I’m not a huge Jack London fan: I read a few short stories before this trip, as well as a biography; but I never could bring myself to read The Call of the Wild, and I’m not compelled by most of his plotlines—struggles for survival, quests for gold. What I find more fascinating is simply Jack London’s life. He was an adventurer: hopping trains, sailing ships, always setting out on whatever path seemed to promise the most glory. And he found his perfect life partner in his second wife, Charmian—she was up for anything, even building a ship called the “Snark” and sailing off on what they intended to be an epic seven-year voyage. He was an alcoholic, struggled throughout his life to make ends meet, and found the writing process a burden—one he did out of financial necessity more than anything else.

Glen Ellen, a bit off the beaten path and lush with redwoods and vineyards and bright orange California poppies, is worlds away from the brutal landscape Jack London depicted in much of his work. His grave, marked only with a boulder from the Wolf House ruins, is nestled among the trees on Beauty Ranch; the area is silent except for the breeze rustling through the leaves and the occasional trudging step of other Jack London stalkers, lucky enough to get a few hours’ glimpse of his final resting place, and the land this wanderer considered home.


Domestic Goddess: The Transformation Begins

I feel something stirring—A Good Thing. I can feel it seeping into my brain and hands; I can feel it shaping me. It rises up in very clear ways…

…like these deviled eggs…

…and my collection of Patio Tomatoes and flowers…

…and here, in my Nicely Set Table.

It rises up when I say to Andrew, “I’m so excited about cooking dinner for your parents—we can use our new serving pieces!” It rises up when I feel a thrill of excitement over using a new granite cheese board.

For now, the dust bunnies and piles of leaves on the terrace keep it all at bay. But it’s lurking, biding its time, while I spend ungodly numbers of hours at home and look for diversion desperately wherever I can find it (and if that happens to be in my kitchen cabinets, then so be it). The transformation begins.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rise Up!

I was reading in the New York Times this weekend that the Encyclopedia Britannica is phasing out its print editions, in favor of online versions. The same goes for other encyclopedia companies as well. This struck the same chord of horror and disgust that I felt years ago, when I first read Nicholson Baker and became aware of the endangered state of card catalogues and print newspapers. Horrifying. It’s been a while since I’ve read Baker—but I do remember him obsessively buying bound newspapers from libraries, collections that were on their way to the trash, and stockpiling them in his garage or barn or some other structure. I was so inspired by (terrified by?) Baker that I purchased my own card catalogue, and I aspire to one day acquiring the card catalogue from the Connellsville Carnegie Library as well, cards and all.

I’ve never had an encyclopedia, and I admit that if I did, it would probably get just as much usage as my thesaurus and dictionary currently do—that is to say, not much. It’s just so much faster and easier to go to the online thesaurus or dictionary—Lord Forbid I should look away from my computer or—Heavens!—actually rise from my desk during the day. Yet I still feel powerfully, stridently opposed to eliminating the print versions. It’s not nostalgia; it’s not resistance to technology (although I am 100% resistant to items like the Kindle and anything that resembles an e-book). I just feel like transitioning completely to an online world is the wrong, the very wrong, way to go.

This little rant has little cohesion, but no matter. I was telling Andrew this weekend that I’m just so tired of the internet. The social networking sites that invite pre-adolescents to communicate with pedophiles and harass each other to the point of suicide; the electronic tie-ins of children’s toys that make every stuffed animal a character in some elaborately contrived and empty-minded online universe; the fact that young kids hanker more for techie toys than for charming wooden blocks or art supplies; the websites that invite college students to post reputation-demolishing rumors about their classmates—anonymously, of course.

It all holds no interest for me, and I just feel like the online fixation is going to reach some inevitable and hideous end—surely, it can’t continue on this way, getting worse and more vapid and dangerous with every new website peopled with just the kind of folks you’d edge away from in the grocery store. Hideous, all of it.

I’m going to start a movement to shove the internet back where it belongs. I propose that we do away with everything online except the following: email; store/company websites; online stores like Amazon and Etsy; online versions of newspapers; Google Maps (but not the satellite applications); Mapquest; websites for professional individuals; and my blogs. We should teach kids to write letters, not to “text”! We should read books, not screens! We should have conversations about real topics with our friends and family, not about vapid subjects with strangers on “message boards”! We need to ensure that we continue to get out of bed every morning and move through the world with our five (or six!) senses intact—instead of letting "avatars" do our living for us! Rise up, humans! Rise up!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Kashi-Inspired Thoughts

Andrew and I have started trying to “eat healthy.” We’ve never done too badly—we cook almost every meal at home, and we eat fast food only when we’re stuck in an airport—but at the same time I have a fondness for soups and gratins and pastas that would be healthy if only they didn’t contain several sticks of butter or cups of heavy cream or delicious slices of prosciutto. But after our bodyfat-testing adventure this weekend, we went to the food co-op, then another grocery store, and stocked up on genuinely Healthy Choices: rice cakes, Kashi all-natural crackers, fruits, vegetables, V-8, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice, salad, lean meats, yogurt, granola. It was an impressive display.

This has nothing to do with our becoming “Californian,” really, and more to do with things such as the fact that since moving to California our walking has been reduced by about 99%. Hence the health food, and hence our gym membership. I’m shocked at the effect that California has had on us: who knew that walking constantly was vital to our ability to subsist happily in Spain on a diet made up primarily of wine, patatas bravas, and large quantities of cheese? We’ve become warped by car culture. Walking to the gym—less than five minutes away—now leads us to say, “Good for us!”

Good for us, indeed. I just looked over at the Kashi crackers beside me; the box is almost empty, and I’m still hungry. Time to toast a bagel and get out the—vegetable, and therefore almost healthy—cream cheese. Onward!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Finding Things to Miss

Greetings, greetings. It’s been a while since I posted on Skipping Town—I’ve been writing regular posts on my new Sacramento blog, Desperately Seeking Sacramento (, but have neglected to stay up to date here.

Part of the reason is that there hasn’t been too much to report these days. Andrew and I are finally settled into our possession-filled home; the last box has long been unpacked, our books are on the shelves, and we’re relishing the convenience of having pretty much every kind of kitchen utensil and appliance known to mankind. Though we blow a fuse anytime we microwave anything for longer than three minutes, for the most part our home life is functioning smoothly.

We’re about four months into married life now; and it’s getting better every day. Of course I always appreciated the charms and humor Andrew brought to my life…but now I’m starting to appreciate his value as A Husband. That oil problem the mechanic told us about two months ago? I forgot about it entirely; Andrew’s been checking under the car consistently, keeping tabs. Husband-ly things like that.

Believe it or not, we’ve been West Coasters for almost eight months—that seems incredible to me, but there we are. The time is going fast, especially now that we have some weekend trips lined up on the horizon and some visitors to plan for. Sacramento is no longer hideous, but sometimes it strikes me that once we do leave here, chances are pretty good that we’ll probably never come back. I don’t mean that in any kind of dramatic, denouncing way—just that this is a temporary place, one that we probably won’t miss very much once we’re on to the next adventure. It will be one of those strange parts of our history, like the fact that I used to be a waitress in a cowboy hat or that Andrew once skipped town for Costa Rica or—assuming that this will, one day, become history—that Andrew once wore a multitude of critter-emblazoned pants. Not a defining or life-altering event, like meeting each other or moving to Spain; just something that happened along the way.

We were in New York a few weeks ago for a couple of days (Andrew had a business trip, and I tagged along) and though it felt strange for me to be there without any kind of purpose—no errands to run, no real destinations to go to—at the same time it felt so familiar and comfortable to wander around the Met, squeeze among strangers on the subway, pay $6.50 for a beer. It was bitter cold in New York and California seemed very far away.

But we’re here now, and life is taking on a comfortable normalcy. It’s pretty much spring, with temperatures hovering around 70 and abundant sunshine. We go to the gym to make up for no longer walking anyplace; we watch movies from Netflix; we cook things; we plan our next trips. Nonetheless, sometimes when I think about Barcelona I get a visceral feeling of sadness, remembering our terrace and long walks down La Rambla—in a strange way I miss it more than I missed New York when I left, perhaps because I’ve always been aware that New York will be there whenever we’re able to go back. Barcelona was something else, a stolen, lucky time that stands out as somehow crystalline. We can go back there, too, of course, but it won’t be the same.

Who knows: maybe one day we’ll feel this way about Sacramento—that living here was, after all, a transformative experience. Until then, we’ll just keep on as we are, trying our best to find things to miss.

Monday, March 03, 2008

A Whale-Watching Weekend in Mendocino

Whale-watching and wine-tasting—could there be two more fabulous, and Californian, ways to spend a weekend? For weeks Andrew and I had planned a trip to Mendocino for the annual Mendocino Whale Festival, so early Saturday morning we loaded up the car and headed north.

Sacramento’s location remains, hands-down, my favorite thing about the city. The drive to Mendocino was beautiful—we wound through vineyards and redwoods and rocky hillsides, through sun and rain. We stopped at Dean & Deluca as we went through Napa—who knew there was one out here?—and sipped coffee while debating what could lead a D&D cupcake to cost a shocking $6. Fortified, we continued on, passing several signs warning FLOODED and SLIDE AHEAD (but we saw neither floods nor slides). And soon enough we were surrounded by wine-glass-carrying crowds and more than a few former hippies.

The Whale Festival name may suggest a focus on whales, but the real focus of this weekend—Saturday in particular—was on wine. Eighteen Mendocino County wineries set up tasting stations from 11-4 in Mendocino’s many boutiques and galleries; and three or four tastings from eighteen wineries adds up to a whole lot of wine for one day, despite the platters of cheese and crackers. As the afternoon went on, the tastings became more boisterous, the tasters more sociable; someone dropped a wine glass in a bookstore. Novice tasters, we probably stood out among some of the clearly zealous wine aficionados, some of whom wore beaded and leather necklaces designed so a wine glass nestles inside. (After eighteen tastings, avoiding carrying anything breakable seemed like a good idea.)

We had dinner that night at the charming Mendocino Hotel, and finished our wine in wing-back chairs in front of the lobby fireplace—remote little Mendocino does not lack for coziness. Afterwards, we stopped for a beer at a loud local bar that was filled with good-natured end-of-the-road types in tattoos and ratty clothes—surprising after the well-heeled crowds of the afternoon. (Though as Andrew pointed out, they seemed more like elective end-of-the-roaders, able to head back to their parents’ houses in Marin County whenever they wanted—unlike the scary end-of-the-roaders in Barcelona, who really did seem like they’d come to a kind of irreversible and downward-spiraling conclusion.)

Sunday we dedicated to whale-watching. With over 18,000 whales making their way north past Mendocino—and with an entire festival named in their honor, no less—I felt confident that seeing a whale was in my future. We watched the water from the Mendocino headlands for a while, but saw nothing.

We’d been told the whale-watching was excellent near the Point Cabrillo lighthouse, so we headed there in the late morning. But the water was rough, making it difficult to see the telltale spouts from among the white caps. Nonetheless, we hung around the lighthouse docents for a while, who were answering questions and providing information. Genuinely interested in seeing a whale, I asked where whales normally appeared—close to shore, towards the horizon, somewhere in between? “They don’t call ahead,” the docent answered sarcastically. Seriously? Andrew and I spent the rest of our whale-watching coming up with deadpan questions we could ask to shock the most-unhelpful docent, like where we could buy a harpoon. In any case, we did not see any whales at the lighthouse.

One last try: at the Pacific Star winery, dramatically set right against the coastline a few miles north of Fort Bragg. We ate sandwiches at a picnic table on the winery’s grounds, watching the water intermittently through our binoculars; but the ocean was simply too choppy for any sightings. (The water was not, however, too choppy for a few more tastings.)

Whale-less, we headed home. If we’d desired a PIG HUNT or BAT HOUSES, both of which were advertised on hand-painted signs on Route 20, we would have been in luck; next time, perhaps. Instead we rolled the windows down, letting the car fill with the sweet scent of apple blossoms from the thousands of snowy white trees covering the farmland on either side of us. There’s nothing quite like a weekend away.